Friday, December 04, 2009

Beginners Guide to the 24-36 Hour Racing

This guide is designed to help teams and individual get through all the questions necessary to successfully complete a 24-36 hour expedition style adventure race. It is recognized that most beginners to this style of racing will be pushing well past their comfort zone and the information here is to help them feel more comfortable and have a successful race and a memorable and enjoyable experience.


            While top teams and competitors will be spending long hours months before the race in hard training sessions – these are not really necessary to complete the race. That is not to say you can walk into an expedition race with not training and complete it successfully. You will want to spend some serious time training for the major disciplines; trekking, biking, and paddling. Here are some tips to get more out of your training;

  1. Designate long training days and incrementally build up your endurance. A long day should be just that a full day of training. The full day can include a mixture of jogging/walking, biking, arm-work (rowing), and other stuff. The real idea is to keep your heart rate up. A long day of yard work is an excellent preparation for racing.
  2. Strengthen your weaknesses.  In the 2001 Coastal Assault most teams spent nearly 10-12 hours paddling. This was not hard paddling – but required strong endurance in a single event to continue. There is no way to tell before-hand what discipline will have long hours, so it is good to work hard on your weaknesses. A strong biker/runner/paddler will normally be able to easily ride 2-3 times their normal workout distance – it is how they do on the disciplines that they are not so good at that will help their success.
  3. Select endurance over speed. Only the elite teams are going to be pushing themselves at their utmost endurance limits. Many top teams do not finish races simply because they are pushing against these limits from the race start. The average adventure racer should never feel uncomfortable with the pace – if you are, slow down. Prepare to go at speeds that are less than what you would compete at for shorter distances.
  4. Go to training days and train with your team. This is a team sport and all teams have weaknesses and strengths (both as a team and in their individual members). All team members should know these limits of the other team members. Training together helps you learn how each member reacts to different stresses (heat, pace, dehydration, etc…)
  5. Train with your pack and gear. It simply makes good sense to do some training with you pack and clothes you plan to use in the race. Make sure that you simulate as best you can the weight conditions of the race.
  6. Train at Night. Any expedition race is going to have night segments. Training in the dark is a different world from the light of day. Some racers absolutely love it (I do), it is cooler and you see things that you don’t normally see during the day (especially on the water). It helps if the team is comfortable with night training.

Selecting a Team

            When deciding to do an expedition race – first decide your goals. A team working towards a top 5 finish is going to have completely different dynamics than the weekend warrior out for fun and adventure. Getting the right team-mates can make the race very enjoyable, the wrong team mates can lead to frustration, and your team mates should all have the same goal. If 2 team mates are out do 100% and 2 team mates are out for fun – the formula is frustration for all.

  1. Pick physically compatible team-mates.  Since all team members complete all disciplines, it is advisable to have at a minimum similar trek/run and bike abilities. Because paddling is typically 2 to a boat; 2 strong and 2 weak paddlers are often compatible as team mates (make sure you have the 2 strong paddlers in different boats).
  2. Pick team-mates with similar goals. You will simply have a better race if you do this.
  3. Pick a team leader. Many teams work by consensus, but all teams still should have one person who is responsible for making decisions – or at a minimum getting the team to make decisions. The team leader should be comfortable with making hard decisions for the team; deciding which strong team mate carries a pack for a hurting team mate, pushing or slowing the pace, ensuring all team members eat and hydrate well.

Adventure Racing Gear

            Gear is not a mystery and when split among team members is usually not that expensive. First use the required gear list and decide who will carry what pieces of required gear. All team members do not need to have each piece of gear – this is a common mistake. All 4 team members are carrying the required bike pump and tube. After that pack has been on your back for 20 hours those extra pounds do feel a lot heavier – split it up. Outside of required gear – here are some recommendations.

  1. Lightweight pack with hydration. You will normally not be more than 6 hours from TA to TA, so you will need to be able to carry required gear and enough fluids and food for that amount of time. Camelback (I use the Cloudwalker for 24-48 hour races, Transalp for longer), Golite, and Moletracks are all packs that I have tried and can vouch as comfortable. I also often use a fanny pack turned towards the front, this gives me quick and easy access to food.
  2. Comfortable Shoes and Socks. -  I personally keep 3 extra pairs of shoes (and socks) with my gear box at the transitions. If I feel any hot spots on my feet I change shoes. Smartwool is probably the best you can do with socks. Also it is effective to lubricate your feet, there are specific lubricants for skin available – but Vaseline is quite effective.
  3. Comfortable Shirt and Shorts. – I wear standard running shorts and either Royal Robbins or Railriders expedition shirts (White or very light colored). I carry an extra pair of lightweight nylon pants for when I need to do any bushwhacking or if the insects get too hungry. Most expedition shirts are long sleeved, but you can easily roll up the sleeves.
  4. Sun-hat or Buff. Keeping the sun off your head can be quite important. I usually wear a Buff (like on Survivor), most racers swear by different types of full coverage racing headwear. Either way make sure you are protected from the sun – by clothes, sunscreen, and headwear. Nothing can make your race miserable like a little bit of sunburn.
  5. Sunglasses – I don’t wear them, other racers do.
  6. Other Gear – Besides the required gear, here is some extra gear that always seems to come in handy; bottle of  highly concentrated DEET spray, extra pack of sunscreen, 12 foot length of webbing, 1 credit card and $20 bill in plastic pouch, lip balm, roll of easyglide or other lubricant.
  7. Required Gear – All races have a required gear list, make sure someone is always responsible for ensuring that the team has this gear. It is quite common to have gear checks at checkpoints in a race and time penalties are normally levied on teams that do not have this gear.
  8. My favorite gear items – Surefire G2 Nitrolon Flashlight (indispensably at night), Camelback Cloudwalker – This is my pack of choice for all but 48+ hr races, Tow rope – mine is an 8 foot length of tubing with carabeaners.

Food and Fluids

            The most common mistake made by teams and team members is not drinking enough fluids. The second most common is not eating enough. This is understandable as it is very easy to get caught up in the race and simply forget to eat. Designate a team member to ensure that the team is eating and drinking. Have them set up regular time intervals (I use 15 minutes for fluids, 30 minutes for food) to have the team eat something. Make the food easily accessible, carry it in a front pack, a shirt pocket of some place where it is easy to get to.

  1. What to eat? – Most beginners worry about this way too much. As long as the food does not cause cramps or allergic reactions, it is going to work. Consider 2 things, do you like the food (will you eat it) and is it easy to carry? My personal favorites are fig Newtons, Quaker oats breakfast bars, peanut M&M’s (unfortunately they melt!),  PBJ Sandwiches, Honey flavored granola bars, and Go-gurts (squeeze tube yogurt). I also usually look forward to grapes, cheese cubes, apples, and other fruit at the transition areas.
  2. What to drink? – Of course water is crucial, beyond that any sports drink will work just fine – you do not need the latest electrolyte carb-balanced hypo recovery energy drink. Some beverages that racers go for are Gatorade/Powerade, Endurox, Accelerade, Endurolyte, and there are scores of others. What you really get out of these is calories and hydration. I like to have a nice variety of Gatorade flavors with me on the race, I look forward to my sips of fluids.
  3. Before the Race – Eating before the race is also crucial. My advice is 2 days before the race – pig out. Basically bank some calories and maximize you store of Glycogen. You will burn it. As far as what to eat – well what do you like?


            Every first time racer is going to worry about sleep deprivation. If you are racing in a 24 hour race – don’t worry. You will be very unlikely to even want to sleep – your adrenaline and your body motion will carry you very far. In longer races sleep does become a factor, sleeping becomes a team decision and if the team is sleepy they will have no trouble nodding off. You will also be amazed at how refreshing the short sleep will feel. In longer races and after 2 days without sleep it is often amazing at how amusing the hallucinations can be. The team can often keep itself quite entertained by sharing these.

The Day Before the Race

            The race really starts with the pre-race meeting. Here you normally get your maps and course instructions. Once you have these maps it is now time to get together with the crew and plan out the race strategy – first step for me is to mark the maps. I use highlighters and colored pens to mark out each mile (I place a highlighted dash at one mile intervals along each segment of the course). These markers allow me to estimate travel times from segment to segment with a window for different course conditions. For example many teams will travel a trek section in flat woods at 5 mph average pace. You should have a rough idea of your pacing from your training By knowing where you expect to be and when – you can verify pace using landmarks and the map marks. I make notes on the maps and highlight and annotate course notes directly onto the map. When you are tired and on the course these can be quite handy.

            The other side of pre-race is having the crew prepared. Good teams are in and out of the transition zones in less than ten minutes. This requires good preparation – the crew should be familiar with the bikes, boats, food, and other gear used by the team. It is normal to have all gear and food that you might want laid out and ready to go. You simply go into the TA – grab your gear and food – and go out of the TA. Also be sure to thank your crew for a job well done. In some TA’s where the crew has been waiting for hours for the team to show, and you drag in tired and hurting, grunt a few words and leave – it is possible to have hurt feelings. If you don’t thank them during the race, thank them afterwards.

            Also realize that is really hard to sleep the night before a big race. It will not matter – what matters is the days leading up to the race that you are well rested.

The week before the Race

            My rule of thumb on training. No hard workouts the week before any race (Sprint or Expedition). I take 2-3 days FULL rest (no workouts) before any longer race and 1-2 days full rest before any Sprint (< 8 hrs) race. I will have some light workouts early in the week with lots of stretching to keep my body limber and loose. I also start eating lots of food in the week prior to a race. In most races you will operate at a calorie deficit during the race (unless you have lots of experience). One of the perks of training at the level required for this type of racing is that you can pretty much eat whatever you want – take advantage of that!

During the Race

            Common Mistake #1 – Going out too fast. I have never seen a long race in Florida where the teams are within 15 minutes at the end, so 5 minutes gained running hard to the first TA is not going to get you anything but tired.
            Common Mistake #2 – Not paying attention to your map and passport. If you are not sure about what you are doing or whether you are going in the correct direction, stop and read your passport out loud to the entire team – word for word. Use all maps available. 5 – 10 minutes spent here can save you hours.

            Common Mistake #3 – Not eating enough. Racing is a food-fest. Eat as much as you comfortable can – you will burn over 20,000 calories in a 24 hour race. I personally eat as much as I want of anything I can get my hands on (and yes I do eat Vienna Sausages and beer in a race)

            Common Mistake #4 – Athletic Pride. If you are hurting, tell your team-mates. Even a 5 minute tow can bring you back to life. My nemesis is heat and I will have my team-mates wait while I jump in a body of water to cool off. It may seem like you are losing time, but it is better than a complete bonk.


Richard Owens said...

Thanks for taking the time to blog this valuable information. It will help me a lot as I plan to prepare for my first Adventure Race.

Bridge Boys said...

Wow....great appreciate the advice. I too am preparing for my 1st adventure race! I was totally over thinking the food. Thank you!